Paradise in Our Own Back Yard
Carefully trimmed pathways meander through eighty-six acres of shocking cactuses, sprawling oaks, and vibrant blossoms. Birdsong fills the peaceful air, and lizards sprawl languidly across the trails, soaking up the California sun. Here and there, a small rabbit pauses to nibble a plant and gaze about curiously, while in the ponds frogs make noisy belly flops off of the lily pads. No, this isn’t a far-off resort or National Park: in fact, it’s right across Foothill Boulevard behind our very own Claremont Colleges. Literally only a few thousand yards from Harvey Mudd’s campus there resides the hidden paradise of the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Gardens, an oasis of nature and peace that all Claremont students should take the time to visit at least once, if not every single week! The Gardens have a history that starts in the 1920’s in Southern California. When the young Susan Bixby decided to use her money begin a collection of native Californian plants rather than spending it on college or a career, her family thought she was crazy. Santa Ana Garden’s worker Paula Rieker, however, thinks she was just “ahead of her time.” In the 1920s, conservation was not a prominent ideal, but Bixby was determined to follow her passion and after several years of painstaking collection, she assembled the first all-native Californian botanical garden in Santa Ana, CA. However, the collection of plant species was only part of her vision: she also wanted to work closely with educational organizations to inspire young people to join the conservation effort and appreciate the natural beauty of their native California flora. To this end, Bixby decided to move the entirety of her garden to Claremont, at the time drawn by the proximity Pomona College and the Claremont Graduate University. Now, all five Claremont Colleges, as well as many elementary, middle, and high schools, interact with the gardens. Many graduate students studying botany or horticulture take the opportunity to train in the gardens in a symbiotic relationship that offers the students education, and provides invaluable service for the gardens as well. “We couldn’t function without volunteers,” Rieker tells me.
Students work in the native nursery or on the grounds, and some even help direct the free Audubon bird tours that are offered each month. Those interested in sociology, medicine, and anthropology should also attend one of the workshops on medicinal plants given by the native Tongva people who work at the Gardens (Interested in volunteering? Apply for a position here). Even if you’re not interested in plants, anyone with an appreciation for nature should pay a visit to the Gardens. The peaceful ponds with their tucked-away gazebos are a perfect place for meditation, reading, or even a date. The Gardens are so close that they are even a practical place to go and study during exam season, and the scent of flowers and chorus of birdsong make it impossible to stress out unnecessarily about Economics finals and Literature reviews. Simply breathing the air seems to melt away worry in a fashion that only being utterly surrounded by nature and peace can give you. If you tire of your chosen nature-nook, you can wander the beautifully groomed pathways, making your hike however strenuous you choose. The trails loop off in a meandering maze that you can wander through without ever really being lost, but with the refreshing sense of not needing to go any particular direction. In your wanderings, make sure to visit the beautiful Live Oak near the center of the garden: there is something wonderfully alive about its gnarled twist of branches. And in its roots we also found a baby bunny, so secure in its haven that it was utterly unintimidated by our giant human presences and came hopping right up to sniff at our shoes. The whole garden has a sense of being almost surreal; pure in a way that nature was intended to be before humans began to intrude. So take a moment to refresh, revitalize, and appreciate. These gardens are such a gift, and we are so lucky to have them in our back yard. So get out there and breathe and enjoy the beauty!
**Yearlong passes are available for a very reasonable price, $45 for an individual student. And with the amount of benefit the gardens have to offer, this begins to look like a very low sum indeed. A drop-in rate of $8 is also an option if you’d like to check the gardens out before committing to a pass, but just to warn you, you’ll probably be hooked after your first visit.